On May 27, just before the Orioles began a series in Cleveland, and coming off of a three-game set with Astros where the O’s were befuddled into 52 strikeouts, manager Buck Showalter crept into the inner depths of his beautiful mind and came away with an intriguing premise. That was, batting Adam Jones atop the Orioles lineup.
As inorganic as a post-hangover Big Mac, Jonesy’s positioning in the one-hole did seem strange. Initially, one prototypes a leadoff hitter as a pesky, quick, sprayable hitter willing to work counts, thusly earning walks. Well, that isn’t Jones, but Buck is known for being a lot smarter than everyone else, and when Jones was asked if he was surprised to be the Orioles newest leadoff man, his response was simple.
Prior to the month of June, a combination of what appeared to be nagging injuries and more than usual pressing at the plate deflated Jonesy’s usually above-average numbers to a .232/.292/.354 slash worth only a 72wRC+. Well, it turns out that Buck is still very much wiser than just about every one else in baseball, because not only is Jones #StayingHungry, but he’s morphed back into Eater X.
Since June 1, just as Jonesy was officially penciled in as the Orioles leadoff man, he’s slashed a reputable .261/.290/.580 with a .318 ISO, a mark that more than doubles both April and May combined (.243). No, Jones doesn’t work counts, as his 42.5% chase rate is third-highest in baseball, and he still swings and misses more than Orioles Twitter has the heart to take (16.6% whiff rate). Is it weird to see him leading off a ballgame? Sure, but is it shocking he’s thriving in his new role? Not really.
Jones, when asked if he’s going to change his approach at the plate to adjust to a spot in the order he hadn’t seen since 2010, figured opposing pitchers wouldn’t change the way they’d attack him.
“Are they going to pitch me differently?” he asked. “So no.”
He wasn’t wrong.
The variance in pitches hasn’t changed much, because the book on Jones is rather simple: get ahead early, and throw breaking balls out of the zone to match the whiff rate. It’s worked in the past, and continues to be a formulaic model of success from to time. Though with Jones, if you miss with anything over the plate, you’re often watching him run around the bases.
As his zone profiles show, Jones is driving the baseball with more regularity on the inner-half of the plate than he was before moving to the top of the order, which can mean a few things. It’s probably a sign his rib cage is no longer bothering him, though Jones isn’t one to admit it. A common misconception is the belief that a hitter’s power comes from big muscles or simply swinging hard, which does help, but hitters rely on core torque in order to generate power. Any sliver of fear or hold-back can lead to exposure on the inside-half of the plate, and it looks like Jones is geared up and ready to go.
Early on, Jones was succumbing to a lot of ground balls, owning a 1.60 GB/FB rate throughout the first two months, forced by a lot of weak contact down and in. Since June, Jonesy has pivoted towards more fly balls and line drives, reverting to a 0.74 GB/FB rate, while his line drive rate is at a monthly high of 18.1%. As the Orioles one-hole hitter, Jones has also managed to turn more fly balls into home runs (23.5%), again more than doubling his output from April and May combined (18.5%).
As much flack as Jones gets on chasing sliders down and away, it often masks just how good of a breaking ball/off-speed hitter he is. One of Jonesy’s more overlooked specialties is adjusting to breaking balls over the plate, and since taking over the leadoff role, he’s seen, and taken advantage of, more hittable breaking balls.
Jones wants to swing, early, often and then some, and as much that can be a hinderance, it’s also his mission statement. For example...
You know, a lot of guys aren’t looking to hit a 1-1 Aaron Sanchez skyhook, but Jonesy isn’t most guys. Sanchez is probably under the assumption he sneaks a get-me-over curveball to get ahead in the count, leading to more hooks down in the zone, but as the old saying goes, “hang ‘em and bang ‘em”. One of the biggest reasons for Jonesy’s rising HR/FB rate and eight June home runs has been his consistency in lumping swings such as the one above. Though susceptible to swing out of the zone more than most of the league, Jones is seeing a shift in breaking balls being lobbed over the zone.
April and May saw the typical breaking stuff towards the left-handed batter’s box versus Jones, but whether it’s a matter of execution or just getting too cute, pitchers seem to be finding the middle of the plate with more regularity when Jones is at the plate.
In an afternoon where Marcus Stroman was nowhere but the middle of the plate, Jones evidences the shift towards hittable stuff. Jones sees a backup slider that, again, most hitters aren’t aiming to swing at ahead in the count, but Jones’ eyes light up, smoking a single into the gap for an RBI. Reiterating the love, he’s as good as anyone at adjusting mid-pitch while also meeting barrel to bat. That kind of ability can lead to prolonged at-bats, spraying hits throughout the outfield, and of course, unique power leading off ballgames.
Numbers aside, there’s immediate intimidation seeing someone as established as Adam Jones as the first man to face. It isn’t like your starting the 1st inning against pesky poke hitters like Billy Burns or Ben Revere. With Jones, you’re realistically staring down a potential 1-0 deficit with pitch number one.
Jonesy’s fortitude in his newfound role has accidentally created a stable bat in a slot the Orioles seemed destined for anything but. Who knows how long pitchers continue to leave butterballs over the plate for Jones to continue to churn, or even if he stays where he is in the order, but it really is no surprise he’s relishing in is newest conquest.
When you can swing it like Jones, it really doesn’t matter where you hit.